Michelle Kelly arrived early this past Saturday morning on Lake Owasso in Shoreview, and soon extracted multiple augers, portable shelters and fishing rods and reels from her vehicle.
“I brought bait, too,” she said.
Kelly is an outreach specialist with the Department of Natural Resources who on Saturday would help introduce ice fishing to a group of about 25 members of the Twin Cities Karen community (pronounced Ka-WREN).
Natives of Burma — now widely called Myanmar — the Karen have been oppressed for centuries, with persecution intensifying after World War II, when their ally, Britain, pulled out of Burma.
Many Karen families have since fled to neighboring Thailand, where some have lived their entire lives in refugee camps. One camp, Mae La, houses some 50,000 refugees, about 90 percent of whom are Karen. In total, more than 125,000 Karen are said to be in Thailand refugee camps.
Karen refugees were admitted to the U.S. beginning in about 2000, and four years later Morrison Johnny was among them. Johnny, then 31 years old, came to Minnesota from Thailand with his wife and three (now four) children.
“Karen people live in villages in Burma,” said Johnny, an employment and social services program manager for the Karen Organization of Minnesota. “We are farmers and gardeners, and we fish and hunt.”
Today about 20,000 Karen people live in Minnesota. Most are in Ramsey County, with populations also in Austin, Albert Lea, Marshall, Worthington and Willmar.
The event Saturday on Lake Owasso was similar to introductory hunting and fishing programs the DNR has long hosted for Hmong who have come here as refugees from their native Laos.
Other Southeast Asians who have emigrated to Minnesota include those from Vietnam and Cambodia.
“The Karen people in Burma hunt, but they only think of hunting for food,” Johnny said. “American hunting and fishing is much different. It’s not just about food. It’s about the experience. So we need to educate our people to integrate them into the American system.”
Also on the Owasso ice Saturday was Tong Vang, the DNR liaison to the state’s Southeast Asian communities. Vang is Hmong and came to Minnesota 30 years ago at age 20.
“Karen people have similar backgrounds to Hmong, in that they like fishing and hunting,” Vang said. “In their native Burma, the Karen depended on natural resources for food.”
Vang doesn’t fish much, but does hunt small game, deer, bears and turkeys. He’s proud that Hmong hunters and anglers have made significant progress in recent years complying with Minnesota regulations that protect fish and game.
“We Hmong worried our younger generations who were born here wouldn’t like to hunt and fish,” Vang said. “But they seem to actually like it more than young people living in Laos. Each year, we have about 600 southeast Asian kids take DNR firearms safety classes.”
A challenge for Vang and others in the DNR and other government agencies is that Karen people speak a language all their own — distinct from predominant languages in Laos, Vietnam or Thailand.
Consequently, when DNR conservation officer Vang Lee, 51, meets a Karen angler or hunter in the field, communication can be difficult, even though Lee, who is Hmong, speaks Lao, Thai, Hmong and English.
Lee, who is as comfortable now on Minnesota’s winter lake ice as he once was in Laotian jungles, has been a DNR conservation officer for 18 years. He also was on Owasso on Saturday.
“If I can clearly see that someone I talk to while hunting or fishing doesn’t speak English, only Karen, I’ll ask them, ‘Speak Thai?’ and often, if they’re old enough, they’ll know a little of the Thai language and we can talk that way,” Lee said.
Lee came to Minnesota from Laos via Thailand when he was 13. Laos is beautiful, he said, with vast jungles. But wildlife there has been hunted nearly to extinction.
“When I came to Minnesota, the first thing I saw was a squirrel, and soon I saw lots of squirrels and songbirds,” Lee said. “Later, I came to understand there were laws here protecting wildlife, that’s why there was so much wildlife to see. So I thought, when I grow up, I’m going to be someone who protects animals. Because it’s awesome we have all of this.”
Though only a single northern pike was caught Saturday morning, the sun shone brightly overhead and the assembled Karen people learned a little more about being a Minnesotan in winter.
Every Gyi was happy about that.
Gyi was born in a Thailand refugee camp and came to Minnesota with his family when he was 9. He’s 20 now, a graduate of Harding High School, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and attending technical school eight hours a day, four days a week, learning auto mechanics.
He’s also a part-time educator working for the Karen Organization of Minnesota, specializing in hunting and fishing outreach. Well-spoken and enthusiastic, on Saturday morning he introduced a visitor to one smiling angler after another, while drinking Thai tea and munching on a lunch of egg rolls and other Karen food.
“Some of these people have never ice fished before, so it’s a great opportunity,” said Gyi, who regularly fishes and hunts with his family in summer and fall.
Gyi’s supervisor, Morrison Johnny, said Karen people in Minnesota face many challenges, in addition to learning how to correctly fish and hunt.
“Most of our people are very low income,” he said. “They want to work, but in many cases because of language and other barriers it’s hard to get them into the employment system.
“That’s what we try to do, educate our people. Not only about hunting and fishing, but about life in Minnesota. We want to teach them how to be part of society here.
“We don’t want to give them a fish, so to speak. We want to show them how to fish.”